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A spectre is haunting Edmonton

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On the cold, snowy evening of Nov. 11, Sarah Spisak made the understandable decision not to brave the weather and the pandemic to get groceries for supper.

“I was feeling lazy and decided to order something from SkipTheDishes,” Spisak says. “All I wanted was some wings and good sauce to warm my belly.”

Looking for bar food, she found a listing she had never heard of before, scrolled over to the chicken wings section, and began looking through their sauce options — her “favourite part of the process,” she says — before settling on “Spicy Southern BBQ.”

“I confirmed the order and began imagining how good these wings were going to be: deep fried to perfection and covered in spicy, sweet, sticky sauce.” What she could not have imagined is the disappointment she would soon face.

The reason Spisak had never heard of the restaurant before is that it doesn’t exist — not physically, anyway. It is a ghost kitchen: a business that doesn’t have any tables for people to sit at or waiting areas for customers to pick up take out or a big sign to see as you drive by. Instead, ghost kitchens serve food exclusively through third-party delivery apps like SkipTheDishes or Uber Eats, or DoorDash.

While ghost kitchens have existed in the United States for a while, they have only become popular in Canada over the past year or so. A spokesperson for the Alberta Health Service (AHS) said in an email that the provincial government has approved 14 ghost kitchen locations in Edmonton.

They take a few different forms. Some of them are inside permanent structures, such as the three locations of the appro priately named Ghost Kitchens, located on Whyte Ave, Jasper Ave, and Hermitage Rd. Others are mobile sites, operating out of trailers, such as the two locations of Reef Kitchens in Impark parking lots downtown and just off Whyte Ave (Reef Technology, the Miami-based parking lot operating company that owns these trailers, also manages all of Alberta’s Impark lots).

Both of these types offer a wide variety of brands, each with their own menu, logo, and listing on the food delivery app of choice, all operated out of a single location. So, whether you order hot wings from Wings & Things or carnitas tacos from Red Corn Taqueria on SkipTheDishes, your food is going to come from the same Reef trailer nearest to you. Or, if you look through the menus of both American Eclectic Burger on Door Dash, and Lightning Burger on SkipTheDishes, you might notice they are exactly the same, since both are also operated by Reef.

Ghost Kitchens also acts as a sort of importer, selling the products of hard-to-find American brands of grocery store products like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Cinnabon cinnamon rolls, and bakery items from The Cheesecake Factory.

Others, like the one Spisak unknowingly ordered from, operate out of existing restaurants.

“About five minutes (after ordering), my phone rang and my caller ID was saying that it was Denny’s. ‘That’s weird,’ I thought to myself,” she says. “I picked up the phone and lo and behold it was a lady calling from Denny’s (I could hear all the Denny’s chatter in the background) and was talking about my wings order.”

The larger brands tend to indicate they are ghost kitchens. Buns and Bao appears as “Buns and Bao by REEF,” on SkipThe Dishes, for example, while all of the Ghost Kitchens brands appear under one banner. However, this one, and others like it, tend not to indicate anything about their operation. Spisak only discovered she had ordered from a ghost kitchen because of this fluke — the employee called to tell her they were out of one of the items she ordered — otherwise, it would have appeared like any other restaurant. Bawk Bawk Chicken & Poutines, for another example, is a restaurant based out of London, ON. that rents the kitchen of Wok Box on Jasper Ave to offer their menu for delivery only in Edmonton.

No matter what form they take, one thing is consistent about ghost kitchens: people tend not to like the food.

Spisak, who has worked as a professional cook for nine years, says her experience with them has never been good, and that as soon as she found out she had ordered from one, she knew she was “destined to receive less than mediocre wings from the back of Denny’s.”

“And less than mediocre wings I received,” she says. “The ‘Spicy Southern BBQ’ sauce was nothing more than some teriyaki mixed with HP Sauce and some sort of mango condiment — the leftover remnants of a Denny’s lunch rush.”

This opinion is far from an outlier. A sampling of comments from users on the r/Edmonton subreddit on Reddit painted an almost universally negative picture of ghost kitchens in the city, from low quality food, to tiny portion sizes, to — oddly enough, since it is the basis of the entire business — long delivery times.

“Everything is bought pre made and pre cooked,” says user doughmixer1983, who also says they have been in the food business for a decade. “Basically, they are taking cooked meat and just mixing it with different sauces and seasoning to make it look different.”

“They basically get things shipped in from those American chain restaurants and reheat them up for you. I ordered The Cheesecake Factory and Cinnabon one time, was super disap pointed to see how small the serving sizes are for how pricey it is,” says user bdpoptart.

“I despise these places,” says user suckmygoatsack.

And it isn’t just customers that have a bad time dealing with ghost kitchens. Azad Kaya, a former food delivery driver, says that his impression from the perspective of having to pick up orders from them is equally as bad.

“Most of them are super sketchy,” says Kaya. “I’ve wandered around the block trying to find the place I was supposed to pick up from, only to call and have them tell me I’m supposed to knock on a door in the alley.”

Kaya also says his impression is that, because ghost kitchens do not have any customer-facing locations, there is less scrutiny, and that from what he has seen, a lot of them can appear much dirtier than what people might expect from a normal restaurant. Lastly, he adds that out of any type of restaurant, ghost kitchens have always made him wait the longest when he arrives to pick up the food.

The spokesperson from AHS says that ghost kitchens are subject to all the same health and safety standards as normal restaurant kitchens, regular visits from a health inspector, and that so far, no health code violations have been found at any ghost kitchen in Edmonton.

A spokesperson from Reef issued an emailed statement to the griff that read in full: “Reef’s top priority is the health and safety of our employees and customers, and we follow strict food handling and COVID-19 safety protocols at all of our Neigh borhood Kitchens. Additionally, Reef works hand-in-hand with our restaurant partners to ensure quality and consistency in every meal we prepare. This often requires installing specialized kitchen appliances or sourcing specific ingredients from local partners. Through our network of Neighborhood Kitchens, we are able to broaden the delivery options available to customers and provide restauranteurs the resources and flexibility they need to evolve and expand, while minimizing operational costs and delivery times.”

Ghost Kitchen Brands, the parent company of Ghost Kitchens, could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

From a business perspective, the appeal of ghost kitchens is easy to see. Opening a full restaurant comes with massive up-front and operating costs — paying high rent for a location large enough to fit a kitchen and dining room, hiring front-of-house staff, and often large amounts of construction and remod eling. Ghost kitchens, on the other hand, reduce the real-estate costs, need less staff, and eliminate the need to provide and maintain anything for customers except the bare bones of cooking necessities. It is essentially food preparation stripped down to its barest, most efficient form.

In practice, what this tends to get you is U.S. companies siphoning money out of local economies by providing cheap, purposefully generic menus through an opaque assortment of brands out of trailers and buildings that customers can’t even visit.

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